Russian police kill al Qaeda’s co-founder in the Caucasus

A wanted Egyptian al Qaeda operative who helped establish the terror group in the Caucasus has been killed by Russian security forces during a clash in Dagestan.

Russia’s Federal Security Service killed Mokhmad Mohamad Shabban, who is better known as Saif Islam or the Sword of Islam, and an associate during a raid yesterday in a mountainous region in the Republic of Dagestan.

“On February 2, the FSB [Federal Security Service] carried out a special operation in the district center of Botlikh, Dagestan. One of the founders of the Al Qaeda network in the North Caucasus Mokhmad Mohamad Shabban, 49, also known as “Saif Islam,” and a gunman accompanying him were neutralized as they offered armed resistance,” according to a statement published at Itar-Tass.

Shabban helped establish al Qaeda in the Caucasus, along with Ibn al Khattab. “In 1992, he [Shabban] arrived in Chechnya to take part in operations against federal forces,” a Federal Security Service spokesman told RIA Novosti .

Russian security forces killed Khattab in 2002. Khattab served as the commander of the International Islamic Battalion in Chechnya, al Qaeda’s combat unit in the Caucasus.

The Federal Security Service has accused Shabban of plotting attacks against government and security personnel, and infrastructure throughout the Caucasus, at the behest of Georgian intelligence.

“He masterminded acts of sabotage to blast railway tracks, transmission lines, and gas and oil pipelines at instructions by Georgian secret services” the FSB stated. The FSB also accused Shabban of masterminding the Jan. 6 suicide attack that killed seven policemen on the outskirts of Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan.

Background on Russia’s struggle against al Qaeda and allied groups in the Caucasus

Russia often accuses rival Georgia of backing al Qaeda and Chechen rebels. Russia and Georgia went to war in August of 2008 over the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The war ended after a week of fighting that led to the rout of Georgian forces.

Since the early 1990s, terror groups have operated from camps in Georgia’s Pansiki Gorge, and used the region as a safe haven to attack inside Chechnya and the greater Caucasus. In 2002, more than 200 US Special Forces troops deployed to Georgia to train four battalions of light infantry to operate in Pansiki. The Georgian battalions also were equipped with weapons, vehicles, and communications gear. The US mission ended in 2007.

Over the past two decades, al Qaeda has fought alongside Chechen rebels during two brutal wars against the Russians that are thought to have resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 civilians and thousands of Russian soldiers and Chechen fighters. The bulk of the Chechen resistance was smashed after the Second Chechen War, but al Qaeda continued to operate, and managed to radicalize many of the remaining nationalist rebels.

Russian security forces, backed by local forces in the Caucasus, have had success in decapitating the top leadership of al Qaeda and radical Chechen forces. After killing Khattab in 2002, security forces eliminated his successors; Abu Walid al Ghamdi was killed in 2004, and Abu Hafs al Urdani was killed in 2006.

Russian security forces also killed Saif al Islam al Masri, a member of al Qaeda’s shura and a chief financier, in 2002; and Muhammad bin Abdullah bin Saif al Tamimi (also known as Abu Omar Saif) in 2005. Tamimi served as second in command to Shamil Basayev, the military commander for the Islamic Army in the Caucasus. Basayev and much of his leadership cadre were killed by Russian security forces in 2006.

After Basayev’s death in 2006, the Chechen and Caucasus jihadists united under the command of Doku Umarov, one of the last remaining original leaders of the Chechen rebellion and a close associate of al Qaeda. In November 2007, Umarov declared an Islamic emirate in the greater Caucasus region and named himself the emir, or leader.

In the spring of 2009, Umarov reignited the insurgency by launching a wave of suicide attacks in the Caucasus. In April 2009, Umarov revived the Riyad-us-Saliheen martyr brigade, which has spearheaded the assault.

“Riyad [the Riyad-us-Saliheen martyr brigade] is believed to be descended from two other Chechen terrorist organizations led by Basayev, the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment (SPIR) and the International Islamic Brigade (IIB),” according to the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism datatbase. “It has even been suggested that Riyad is simply the result of the marriage of these two groups.”

The group’s most recent successful operation was the wounding of the president of the Republic of Ingushetia in June of 2009.

In the past, Umarov denied having connections with al Qaeda and rejected terrorist attacks against civilians. But in 2006, Abu Hafs al Urduni stated that the Chechen jihad was being reorganized under the command of Doku Umarov after the death Basayev.

Russian security forces thought Umarov was killed during a raid in November 2009 that killed several of his close aides, but Umarov has since resurfaced.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.



  • Tyler says:

    Bill, interesting that the kill comes so soon after the breakup of a large Al Qaeda network in Turkey, including the capture of Abu Zar, who as you reported had extensive contacts with Chechen and Al Qaeda leaders in the Caucasus.
    Perhaps this was some of that actionable intel the Turks talked about at the time.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    I had a similar thought when writing this up, Tyler. I haven’t had any responses to queries and given the nature of this one don’t expect to for some time.

  • Al says:

    What bothers me about Russia is: they just do not get it. WE are not their enemy. Muslims in the southern areas are a greater threat. They could or should be our best allies! Russians are Europeans and largely Christian.

  • Spooky says:

    They would be allies if we didn’t keep acting like the Cold War was still on by blindly siding with overly-ambitious presidents who blatantly try to appease the West to get them to tangle with the Russians.
    We stay out of their field of influence, they stay out of ours. Then maybe they wouldn’t try to stick out their proverbial leg to make us trip in Central Asia.
    Otherwise, good show for taking care of the guy in Dagestan. Go Russia.

  • henry says:

    With the death of saif islam, dr. mohammed and captured of abu zer, the chechen’s assistance from abroad will decline dramatically. That leaves amir muhannad to be one of the few surviving foreign leaders.

  • Paul says:

    Al, ultimately a few bombs going off in some backwards southern provinces aren’t going to make Russia side with America when the exercise of Power Politics and the control of routes of Oil and Natural Gas mean that America and Russia are natural competitors, regardless of whether they are Europeans and largely Christian

  • sjg says:

    Bravo. Russia started its war on terror long before 9/11 and has made important progress ever since. Everyone gave them a hard time for tactics used in conducting internal offensive operations against the foreign jihadist-backed insurgency in Chechnya. Russian-US relations have been largely neglected, if not mismanged, in the post-Cold War era. There is so much that the US and NATO can benefit in cooperation with Russia compared to the minimal amount to be gained by encouraging liberal behavior and consistently poking them in the eye on Human rights, etc.

  • Rookie says:

    Yes, Russia can be an excellent partner for US.
    I mean, they really set an example by fighting terrorism with the lives of their own civilians (Moscow theater, Beslan).
    Russia will never be an ally to US because it’s an empire and wants world domination. Putin is a dictator – he killed civilian people by order, and situation only will deteriorate with his age.
    By the comments I see, some Americans would be happy with two big fields of influence. Well, if we are to believe Alexander Litvinenko (not alive anymore), al-Zawahiri spent some quality time in Chechnya/Russia in 1996-1997 receiving training from FSB.
    Maybe pure speculation (I’m not very fond of conspiracy theories), but the amplitude of 9/11 attack can point to a gift from US dearest friend, Big Bear.
    Next gift (Iran) will follow. They are working on it for a decade now.

  • Spooky says:

    If you are not fond of conspiracy theories, don’t post them.
    Also, if Russia is an Empire, so is the United States. The more it deludes itself otherwise (while keeping the behavior the same), it will continue to have problems in dealing with the rest of the world. If America just owns up to itself, then things can be a little less vague and more direct actions can be taken in places like Afghanistan. Alas, that won’t happen, so its pointless to think about. But calling Russia an Empire is pot to kettle for any American.

  • Paul says:

    Russia is literally an empire. While the British and French Empires disintegrated and their subjects became independent states, the Russian Empire merely metamorphed into the Soviet Untion, which today’s Russia was born from.
    While some of the subject colonial peoples of Russia gained independance after the Soviet Union fell (Estonians, Latvians, Georgians, Kazakhs etc.) there were still many other small nations stuck inside Russia (Chechens, Circassians, Tatars etc.) they do not and never did want to be part of any Russian state, and are only kept there by fear of annihilation.
    Hopefully the declining demographics of Russia will one day lead to it’s further collapse and these peoples independance,

  • sjg says:

    Successful Russian activitiy and control in its section of the Caucasus with an Islamic population (Dagestan, Ingushetia, Chechnya) is certainly in the interest of the larger GWOT. The US/NATO should therefore be assisting Russia with COIN training, information sharing and logistics, both to enhance Russian abilities and to discourage an overly heavy-handed approach which could make the situation worse by pushing the population towards a relience on fundamentalists.

  • Infidel4life says:

    the enemy of my enemy is my friend. This is about spreading ISLAM too. Seems like the Eastern Orthodox countries have been fighting for a long time. Baltic states, even Romania. Western Europe sure does have a short memory. Now, moslems from everywhere go to Europe, everythings free, and hey!! they give you $$ and food!! Meanwhile they undermine Europe from within.

  • Infidel4life says:

    AL you are right. 1 day we may have to put petty difference aside for a common, life or death struggle. Won’t be long the Persians will have the bomb, and truth is they MAY have it already.

  • Paul says:

    And which country is it that is helping Iran build a nuclear power plant at Bushehr again?

  • Alex says:

    This article has been linked to in Frontier Outlook:


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram